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Approaching death, the inescapable fact of life

by Josina Keuskamp-van Schaik

An interview with Judith Pocock, the founder of the Ruby Care Foundation.

For Judith Pocock, the process of death is entirely connected with the awe and wonder of the enigma and mystery of life. One of her motifs in starting the Ruby Heart Foundation was to penetrate the taboos that surround this most important time and raise the awareness of the proces of dying. 'It started in me because of a growing dissatisfaction with the way people look at death. I have worked for years with people who were dying and I saw the non-acceptance and the fear. Somehow people don't expect to die, it has become distasteful, they don't want to talk about it, they don't want to think about it.'

Dying is a reality for us all, and the process of it goes through particular stages. Most people want to die well with a sweet soft death. How can we achieve a state that helps us to be at peace, clear and accepting, despite any pain, sadness or discomfort there may be? Judith explains that there is a definite process of sorting and settlement that should be facilitated at the end of each life. 'While assisting people who were facing the fact of their death, I tried to help them talk about their fears and worries. I witnessed the settlement when they could speak out what was troubling them inside. That made me see the need for what I call "companion-counsellors". These are carefully trained people who enable the dying to talk through their fears, worries, hopes, aspirations, about everything that needs settling. There is a system in those nearing death that insists on having that settlement. It's rather like a woman in the last weeks of pregnancy - suddenly there is an insistence in her to clean, sort and get things ready for the new arrival. It's similar when somebody approaches their departure, the internal systems promote the need to get things sorted.' Facilitating this shedding and sorting period is an important function for the counsellor. It can take many hours, weeks or even months of talking things through for a person to unburden themselves, to get practical issues sorted, such as writing a will and, if they are unwell, to understand what the illness is about, how it will progress and how they can be prepared. Then there is how they can prepare their family and friends and settle to leaving loved ones.

The training for this companioning is very skilful. The counsellor needs a broad wisdom about religion, social etiquette, moralities and ethics, human life in general, psychology, human behaviour…so many things are needed to be able to assist properly when somebody is troubled at the end of life. 'People need to understand what is actually going on at dying', Judith says. 'Yes, there is pain, yes there is the illness side of it, that is one part, the physical part. But there is much, much more happening at the same time that needs assistance. Dying people need to look back down the line of their life and put it into a manageable, acceptable something. Everyone needs to know that their life was worth living so that they can then look from the end of their life with satisfaction and say "yes, I was worth something". A companion-counsellor can help them to bring all the importances of their life together.'

It is clear that in the medical profession most of the resource is put into helping people with physical relief. However the physical pain can mask mental, emotional and spiritual pain. It is very easy not to hear the cry behind the pain. It is even difficult for the dying to reach beyond their own physical pain. This is where the help of the counsellor becomes very important. A lot of the work of a companion-counsellor is best done before the physical pain gets too great, then somebody can enter the period with pain with better settlement. Often then the time that they have during the painful part is not so long because the inside pain has been dealt with. The inside pain may be things they regret, or want tidied up. The companion enables the dying to release resentments, fears, sometimes secrets, stored for years, that their systems now seek to relegate. From experience Judith knows that the dying person can start to talk about very shocking things. 'For example, an old lady of ninety can suddenly start talking about an incestuous affair with her father when she was ten, or somebody committed a crime, or even a murder - and this is something that they've never told anybody. It can be small things from the past as well. Every one of us has done things in our lives that carry a certain amount of shame. It is when a life comes near to death that all the turmoil that attended that thing seeks to get out into the open, so they can be clean about it.' Anger, shame, guilt, all these emotional and mental residues are like anchors that prevent a person from leaving. Judith says it's crucial that a person goes through a process of forgiveness and self-forgiveness. No strings attached, nothing left over, ready to move on to wherever they go after they changed state from this life to another state.

'What do we actually mean by dying?' Judith asks, 'Dying does not happen in just one moment, there was breathing and then there was not. Dying is a long process. Different parts of the body have different rates of process, they stop, slow down, or leave at different times.' Judith explains how components that are brought together from different places go back to their source of arising as the force that held them together weakens. Eventually the body returns to the earth while the higher parts may be released elsewhere. You can see the difference between what we call alive and dead in the eyes - after death there is nothing looking out of the eyes anymore. Something went elsewhere, something that Judith refers to as "the life-force". 'It's a pure force and it's beautiful. You see it in the shining eyes of a baby. When witnessing the birth of a new life. Nobody hesitates in saying how wonderful it is and confirming the miracle of it. I have assisted at births as well as deaths and both can be absolutely beautiful. After birth this force goes through a time of what we call 'being alive'. It goes through whatever experiences come to that particular person, some are lovely, some are awful and everything in between. Then when it comes to the end everything needs to be sorted and shed, and you are left with that same pure life-force that arrived here. I think that is the lovely thing that you experience when somebody dies. Shortly after the actual moment of passing you often sense an extraordinary presence and beauty; almost a euphoria. I wonder if that grace is not simply that beautiful life-force in its pure state, without all the experience that that person has gone through. It is now separated out from the physical, and you are in the presence of it again, in its pure state. We have no trouble in recognising that life-force when it comes into a new baby. I would say to anyone who does assist in the companioning of the dying, to be equally open for that part, because it is absolutely lovely. It is as much in a very, very old person as it is in a baby. It is extremely enhancing to be in its presence. If people can come to the understanding that at the end of life there is a beauty, a glory and a loveliness, then that should help everybody to be able to talk to the dying and say that there will come a moment when that life-force that lives in you is going to be in that lovely pure state again. Then all will be working towards the same thing, making the process of passing, of separating, moving on and departing a natural, normal part of what living is about.'

At the time of dying ceremony is very helpful. Judith has developed particular ceremonies concerning the time before and after passing. 'We have introduced certain ceremonies into an old peoples' homes. When somebody dies everybody else in the house is allowed to see the body that is now empty of life and can spend time with the departed life of that person. Then there is perhaps a candle lit in a ceremonial way, for the light that that life represented which now seems to have gone out. People will talk about the person who has died, about the qualities in their lives - perhaps patience, tremendous understanding of others, or whatever - and they write down these qualities onto little pieces of paper, and put them on a table in front of the candle. Now this is hugely fortifying, and they then know, 'When I die, people will likewise remember me too'. Just introducing that small ceremony into that home has made a huge difference to the way those elderly people are now approaching their own death.

'A simple ceremony can cause a very deep emotional response in people. It can help with settlement, fortification and acceptance and make a mark of great importance. Another ceremony that I am putting together is a kind of settlement-for-all ceremony. When a family knows that a member is going to die soon, the family and close friends will come together around the dying, and have the opportunity to pay them the compliment while they are still alive of saying 'I see that you have been able to show enormous patience and care during your life and I thank you for that'. So each person would approach the dying and confirm their qualities. They would then also ask, 'Is there anything that you are worried about that I can help you with before you go?' It's a very simple ceremony that helps to fortify everyone. It confirms the best of the person who is dying, reassures them and helps with any areas that they are still worried about. The family and friends are useful and it helps them in the process. So instead of this huge emotional turmoil about somebody's death, everybody can begin to be more accepting, settled and joyous. This is a ceremony particularly for people who die at home, where families are often so devastated that they don't know what to do. I have often witnessed the situation where someone is lying in bed close to death, the family is close by and nobody knows what to say. All that is needed really is that everyone comes together and makes a celebration of the person's life which will confirm to the dying that 'Yes, my life was worthwhile'. The family knows that they were able to help at the end of it, which is a very big difference, to be able to help and give easement to the person who is trying to pass on to the next stage of whatever life is.

It is very satisfying when you are able to help this happen - the family and the dying person all coming together in settlement and acceptance. It is not to say that there will not be pain, but at least the time of passing can be a very lovely affair. In my personal experience it is a time enhanced by grace and light, despite all the physical discomfort and mutual letting go that goes on at another level. It is very, very special. Then people can say 'they died well', and I think that is what each of us would want - to die well.'

Judith goes on to explain about funeral practices that are helpful in the process of departure. 'As someone is going through their departure, those around can pull all the qualities together that that life represented, so that the life can feel its entirety and its wholeness. Now over the next couple of days while the dying process continues, there is a need for fortification, both for the life that has passed, and is still passing, and for those who are left behind. There is the need to make a ceremony, perhaps with people who knew that life very well. They would come together and speak out loud the importance, qualities and the strength of that life. In speaking this out loud, it is all passed on to the life-force which you can feel the beauty of, that is still maybe near-by. At the same time you are also fortifying yourself and each other in the call over and the celebration of that life. So, there is a whole fortification that goes on. For example, instead of a partner feeling bereft, left alone and lost they can feel the strength of other people If that is done as a ceremony, that goes into a deeper vector inside people than if somebody, say, just writes a little letter - which can also help, I would add.'

Judith's vision is to see every single life on this planet companioned in this way as they die, if that is what they want to happen, which would mean a lot of people trained to be companion counsellors. 'I want to see this established and accepted as part of what goes on at the time of death. In the same way that people accept midwives at the time of birth, I would like to see companion counsellors at the time of death. I want to take dying away from the hospitals, for those who would wish it. There are a lot of young ladies fighting to have the right to have their babies born at home, because they don't want to be in hospital. I want to take dying away from that environment and to bring it home where it belongs; I know that dying at home is where it used to belong, in the family heart and home and this is where it belongs now.'

The Ruby Care Foundation is an international non-profit making organisation that offers bereavement counselling services to the dying and their families and training for companion counsellors, as well as public lectures about the process of death. It is a charity based in the U.K. For further information, please write to The Ruby Care Foundation, PO Box 21, Llandysul, Wales SA39 9WA, or email: Contact